by Paul Ford
As unlikely as it might seem, at least if you take any notice of the vast amount of doom-laden media coverage the subject is getting, there will be life after Coronavirus. It’s not the end of the world. Really. However, will things have changed when we finally leave our homes and step out, dazed and blinking, into the sunlight? Almost certainly, and the workplace will potentially be at the forefront of that change. The technology to work away from the office has been around for a long time but with few exceptions the full embracing of the potential it might provide has never happened. Now some of that will be down to uncertain technology and being reliant on factors beyond the leadership team’s immediate control, but sadly much will have been down to a basic mistrust of people. Some managers are often little short of horrified at the concept of someone they are paying doing their job out of direct line of sight. (This does beg the question that if they don’t trust someone who’s working for them to get the job done under their own initiative and without monitoring and control, then why did they hire them in the first place?)
However, with enforced isolation and a general recommendation that people work from home, even the most reluctant of organisations are being forced to come to terms with a ‘distributed’ workforce. This may involve rapid investment in and implementation of or simply upgrading the equipment they need to ensure the business can still operate.
It’s not without problems. Many corporate networks just don’t have the capacity to switch to the majority of their connections coming in via Virtual Private Networks (VPN) without significant investment. But companies like Slack, Zoom, Google and Microsoft have been quick to offer tools to help enable the change for free, which will ease the burden at least in part, even if it's clearly a means to selling the products they offer further down the line, when organisations have been hooked.
Once that investment is made, it’s financially sensible to make the most of it, seeing a return measured over years, not weeks or months. And that may result in a sea change in the way many work. Let’s not forget that the Life / Work balance has become more and more important in recent years. Being there for your children, your husband, your wife, your partner, your parents, when you are needed has become a key motivator. In addition, the pressure to make lifestyle changes to positively impact on climate change has increased enormously over the last two to three years. Bushfires in Australia and California and the work of activists like Greta Thunberg have raised the profile of the importance of the environment. And if we’re not commuting, not using cars, not using planes because we’re happy to meet and do business online then that’s a win. For everyone. Not least because we’re not wasting vast amounts of the day (and fossil fuels) simply travelling to another place when we could do what we need to do perfectly well where we were in the first place.
There’s a knock on effect of course. Fewer people in offices means less need for office space. A reduced need for the retail / hospitality industries that normally co-exist alongside those offices.
And we’re social animals. A recent survey indicated that a primary driver for simply going to work was the people that you worked with (OK, most of them). So long-term isolation might not be quite so great. If working from home becomes the norm then you’d need to put some kind of schedule in place to ensure human interaction wasn’t entirely undertaken digitally.
It’s always been about balance, and this really could be a chance to achieve an equilibrium that almost everyone gains from.
Now, isn’t that good news?